Lori Freitas Houghton

Lori Freitas Houghton

Experienced Recruiter & HR Partner

Natlee Green

Natlee Green

HR Leader

Emil Towner

Emil Towner

Associate Professor of Business Communication (SCSU)

Updated : 12/29/2020

We all have less than stellar moments at work.

An unfortunate comment in the hallway that gets repeated.

A tense exchange in a meeting.

Your communication–verbal and nonverbal–can define your work reputation and the trajectory of your career. While a spoken faux pas may be forgotten, there’s nothing like a crazy email to showcase terrible unprofessionalism–and to last forever.

What is essential email etiquette and how can you avoid the worst offenses so your mistakes aren’t immortalized?

For Natlee Green, it comes down to the three Ts: To:, Tone, and Timeliness. As an HR leader, Green makes email etiquette training essential for new hire orientations. Like many organizations today, her company is 100% remote and email offenses can damage the work atmosphere for remote teams.

Let’s start with the first T, To: who receives your work email?

1. Email Etiquette 101: Send to the Right People

Selecting your recipients may seem like a harmless part of email behavior, but it can be surprisingly risky. Slow down when you enter your recipients.

Make sure, first of all, that you’re selecting the right people. It’s embarrassing to send an email to the wrong person. And perhaps you’ll risk sharing privileged information.

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Don’t Oversend Your Work Email

Sometimes when you select an email distribution list or load up the recipients, you’re sending the wrong message.

“While there are times when other people need situational awareness, when you add too many people to the “to” line (rather than CC or BCC), they can feel that the email is a call to action,” says Green. This can cause confusion, multiple responses, even doubling work efforts. No one should receive an email and ask: Why is someone sending this to me?

Oversending may also unintentionally broadcast an angry tone, since irate individuals sometimes copy everyone on an email in order to expose grievance or vent anger.

Limit your recipients to those who have a responsibility or a stake in the issue. Green suggests using the @ function within the email or work messaging application to direct clear accountability for tasks.

Don’t Leave Out Important Recipients

The other side of the problem is frustrating people because you’re leaving them out of the loop.

If in doubt, consider putting someone on CC. It’s less directly a call to action, but keeps them informed as needed.

Beware the Perils of BCC

When do you blind copy and when should you avoid it?

Blind copying others is important when you are sending an email to unrelated recipients. For a newsletter or promotional mass email, for example, you will annoy recipients by sharing their email addresses with strangers.

Are there legitimate reasons to blind copy in a work email context? Probably not.

It’s sneaky.

It feels dishonest, because the unsuspecting recipients don’t realize there’s a spy.

And the person you’ve allowed to eavesdrop may respond and hit “Reply All,” thus alerting everyone that you’ve blind copied someone. So don’t BCC. It can blow up on you.

Set the Context in Your Work Email

How you frame your email is important.

“People often jump right to their questions or comments when writing an email,” explains Emil Towner, a professor of business communications. “That’s because we’re deep in thought about the topic when we start writing. The problem is the reader is usually focused on a different topic when they open that email.”

Show recipients courtesy by giving them context so that they understand why they’re receiving the email.

Towner suggests including these three pieces of information:

the topic of the email
the reason it’s being sent at this moment, and
what information the email will include.

“All of this can be stated in one brief sentence at the beginning of the email,” he adds.

2. Consider the Importance of Email Tone

Green coaches her employees to treat email communication more like a conversation than a text.

“In this age of social media and fast communication, people sometimes lose sight of the purpose of an email. I tell my employees to share their quick thoughts/ideas via Slack or Teams, etc., and to use email in a more structured/personal way,” says Green.

If You’re Angry, Slow Down

Probably the worst email offenses come when someone is angry. And the stakes are high: once something’s in writing, it’s just a click away from going to everyone.

Slow down and take a break. Go for a walk or sleep on it so you have a calmer, more even-handed tone.

But if the issue requires urgent action, Green suggests, “Read your email out loud before hitting send, and ask yourself if the tone is friendly and respectful.” Consider sharing your draft with a trusted friend or colleague who can point out where the tone seems inflammatory. And don’t use all caps. It will feel like you’re shouting at the recipient.

Understand Your Work Culture

The tone you take in an email–how formal your wording is, what topics are acceptable, your use of emojis, etc.–will depend on the culture.

Some work environments have low tolerance for sharing personal details or casual sentence fragments. Others are more casual. Take your cues from respected people in your organization.

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3. Make Work Email Economical, but Complete

It may not be the worst email offense, but it’s probably the most common: many emails are rambling and vague.

Don’t waste your reader’s time, but give them complete enough information that they don’t need to follow-up with clarifications.

Anticipate the Details People Will Need

“Incomplete emails can frustrate your readers—and you—because people need to reply with follow-up questions,” Towner notes. “In the end, you’ll spend your time re-sending information that could have been included in the original message and your readers will be forced to save multiple emails (each with a different part of the message).”

Think of your audience and what information is needed. “Remember to include due dates, meeting room numbers, follow-up steps, resources to complete a project, and even background details,” advises Towner. “Make sure every email answers: Who? What? When? Where? How? And why?”

You’ll save yourself and your recipients a lot of hassle.

Don’t Be Wordy

Your goal is to fill in all of the blanks, without making readers sort through too many words. Towner advises, “Don’t confuse ‘brevity’ (fewer words) with ‘conciseness’ (completeness using fewer words).”

He recommends using plain language, being specific, and cutting redundancies.

4. Email Etiquette Means Being Timely

Basic courtesy means you must be timely. Once you gain a reputation for not responding to emails, people get frustrated and bypass your involvement. That can negatively affect your career.

Still, it can be difficult to stay on top of email. If needed, Green suggests acknowledging receipt of the email and giving a timeframe by which you’ll follow up. It’s helpful to flag that message and schedule time in your calendar to follow up. Green notes, “There is no reason that you should receive email nudges because someone has been waiting a full week to hear back from you.”

If you need to set an Out of Office auto-reply, make it specific enough to be helpful. Refer them to someone who can help them more quickly, leave your alternate contact information, or let them know when they can expect you to read their email.

Adhering to email etiquette will communicate respect for your co-workers, a basic ingredient for a happy workplace.

About the Author

Lori Freitas Houghton

Lori Freitas Houghton

Experienced Recruiter & HR Partner

In her 15+ years in human resources, Lori Freitas Houghton has worked on both sides of the hiring equation. She’s experienced as a recruiter and partner with hiring managers. She is also a proven career coach with a high success rate at helping job candidates create breakthrough resumes that gain them interviews. With a BA in English and a Master of Organizational Behavior (MBA) degree, Lori also has considerable experience writing and editing HR content.

Natlee Green

Natlee Green

HR Leader

Natlee Green is a strategic HR leader with nearly two decades of experience in both Fortune 500 companies and startup cybersecurity firms, building HR departments from the ground up. She has implemented HR strategy, policies, training, and development programs, managed employee relations and more. Through the years, Natlee has held various HR roles from Coordinator up to Manager.

Emil Towner

Emil Towner

Associate Professor of Business Communication (SCSU)

Emil Towner is an Associate Professor of Business Communication in the Herberger Business School at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. With 19 years in corporate communications, 18 years teaching college courses, and a PhD in technical communication, Towner is passionate about bridging academia and industry to help students and corporations achieve their communication goals. His work is influenced by industry experience, including his previous position as Vice President of Content overseeing web, social media, e-communications, and marketing communications. In addition, his research has focused on how knowledge is transferred (and negotiated) through business communication practices, corporate apologies, and visual communication.